Stitching Together a Closed-Loop Textile Supply Chain

Fabrics swatches in various colors

That new business suit looks great, and your lined gloves are great for keeping your hands warm on a winter morning’s commute. But what about the human capital and environmental costs involved in the textile supply chain that got these items to store shelves and into your closet? To address this, some forward-thinking brands are prioritizing sustainability in this field, aiming to create a closed-loop textile supply chain.

Fabric production has a big footprint. Overall, the world produces more than 100 million tons of fiber annually. In 2016, there were 71 million tons of manmade fibers produced — up from 1980’s 14 million. And in recent years, the way these fibers are produced has come under greater scrutiny, by both increasingly conscious consumers and companies seeking to stay ahead of the curve.

Many manufacturers, for instance, make use of fuels throughout the supply chain that hurt the environment. Speaking to Supply Chain Dive, Yiqi Yang, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, explained, “We produce [textiles] in environmentally problematic ways, because if we use petrol from beginning to end, that’s bad for the environment. There [are] not enough natural resources to supply those materials.”

With millions of tons of new clothing, footwear, sheets, towels, and other products being produced annually (nearly 12 million in 2015, according to the EPA), discarded items often end up in landfills. The United States sends approximately 21 billion pounds of textile waste to landfills yearly, with the alternatives often posing steep costs for companies or complex, inaccessible processes. Motivated by these disturbing statistics and consumers’ increased interest in sustainability and social responsibility, the textile industry is starting to make changes.

Closing the Loop, Opening Up the Possibilities

To create a more sustainable process, some textile companies are developing alternative fibers from waste products, finding innovative ways to recycle fibers, and even fermenting agricultural products to make new materials. For example:

  • In Germany, Anke Domaske’s company QMILK turns spoiled milk into fabric by drying out the milk and making it into a dough, from which a thin protein-based fiber is created.
  • An Italian company is using citrus byproducts to create a spinnable fabric, which was even used in Ferragamo’s 2017 collection.
  • In California and Japan, companies are working with sugar, water, salts, and yeast to make fermented spider silk thread.
  • Pineapple leaves from plantations in the Philippines have been used as faux leather.

In addition to expanding the range of materials available for use, textile suppliers are also looking to reduce waste by recycling fibers. Evrnu, for example, uses cotton garment waste to make a fine fiber with a process using “98 percent less water and 90 percent less carbon emissions than cotton and polyester respectively.”

The startup Circular Systems, meanwhile, is taking factory floor scraps and turning them into yarn rather having them burned. This can significantly boost resource efficiency, as “20% of textiles going into the factory end up in the cutting room floor,” company CEO Isaac Nichelson told Supply Chain Dive.

Big brands such as Patagonia and H&M have also entered the fray. Since introducing its Common Threads program in 2005, Patagonia has started manufacturing with organic cotton and Polartec®, which can be broken down and reused in future product lines. H&M offers clothing vouchers in return for donated clothing, then uses the recycled material (along with sustainably sourced materials) to reach its goal of being entirely weaned off of new fibers by 2030.

Along with the environmental impacts, there is the human cost of the textile industry to consider as well. Fashion Revolution, a global industry workers’ organization working to encourage full transparency, maintains a Fashion Transparency Index ranks the social and environmental impact of fashion companies and their communicativeness about their transparency efforts.

Fashion-Forward, Forward-Thinking

As consumer preferences continue to shift, with more and more focus on sustainability and corporate responsibility, the textile industry is experiencing a transformation. To bring about a closed-loop supply chain, industry players across the world are finding innovative ways to recycle and reuse, and some are even creating entirely new fibers and textiles from eco-friendly — and often unexpected — materials.

As the industry continues to evolve and consumers begin to demand increased sustainability and transparency throughout the supply chain, textile companies will be looking for new ways to provide customers with a more eco-friendly, socially responsible solutions — simultaneously boosting overall business reputation and perception.

Image Credit: Oleksandr Berezko / Shutterstock.com

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